A Glimpse Into the Realities of a Childhood Dream – A Review of Lives in Ruins by Marilyn Johnson

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Like many people out there, I once dreamed of becoming an archaeologist. I’m not sure what led to that wish, but I have a feeling it coalesced out of all the history and mythology books my mother was buying for me during my elementary school years. They were often lavishly illustrated affairs, featuring exquisite photographs of artefacts and the places the artefacts were found; as a child with a very active imagination, it wasn’t difficult to imagine what it would be like if I could actually hold the artefacts depicted. From there, it wasn’t a very long leap to wanting to travel around the world digging into tombs for gold and potsherds—or at least staying here in the Philippines, spelunking into ancient caves to recover mummies hundreds of years old.

But as with many childhood dreams, this particular one died once I was old enough to realise a few important things. First, archaeology is difficult to do in the Philippines. My ancestors didn’t build in durable materials like stone or clay; they built mostly in wood, which means that the odds of finding ancient stone structures like Angkor Wat or Borobodur are practically impossible. Second, if I wanted to do archaeology at more exotic locations—like, say, Greece or Egypt—I’d have to travel abroad to study in universities that actually taught the relevant courses. Third, even if I did go abroad and study the relevant courses, the odds of me being able to join an expedition were slim to none; the odds of starting my own were practically nil. Fourth, even if I did manage to join an expedition, I’d simply be putting myself in harm’s way: disease and injury were just the beginning of a whole host of dangers that awaited an archaeologist, and after two bouts of dengue and one bout of typhoid I was tired of hospitals.

Despite deciding not to pursue archaeology as a career (much to the relief of my parents, I’m sure), I remain interested in the doings of those who actually chose to go into that particular vocation. As a fan of history I’m always interested in the latest archaeological discoveries, and now that the Internet has become a widespread and nearly-ubiquitous technology, it’s become even easier to track down and follow blogs and websites that are about, and are maintained by, archaeologists or those studying to be archaeologists. They can’t talk about every single thing they do at their job, of course, but it’s enough to look over their shoulders (in a manner of speaking) and see what life could have been like for me under very different circumstances.

In her latest book Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble, Marilyn Johnson looks over the shoulders of notable archaeologists in an attempt to understand what it is they do, and why they do it. However, unlike myself, she has access to resources and to people that permit her to go to meet the actual archaeologists themselves, and to work alongside them at digs all around the world.

The first thing Johnson does is dispel a common error some people might hold in their minds, doing so with one sentence: “No dinosaurs appear in these pages.” With those six words she dispels any notion that archaeology and palaeontology are the same: both involve bones, but palaeontology tends to involve animals; archaeology tends to involve people. (They do, however, rub elbows a little bit when talking about early human ancestors.)

Johnson then goes on to dispel any notion that this book will involve treasure—well, it does, but the treasure discussed isn’t necessarily gold and jewels, as Johnson points out in this quote:

To the archaeologist, treasure is something that was buried that has been brought to light, a pebble of information around which the narrative of history now needs to bend.

While no one denies that finding gold and jewels is wonderful (not least because of the public interest—and therefore funding—it can generate), archaeologists are more interested in less glamorous things: potsherds and broken glass, crumbling walls and postholes without posts. It can be a specifically-shaped flake of flint, or it can be a single coin unearthed in just the right place, at just the right time. And with science and technology advancing every day, it’s become easier to find, study, document, and preserve archaeological discoveries both old and new.

However, it isn’t all sunshine and roses, as Johnson is quick to remind the reader:

Technological advances account for some of archaeology’s boom, but war, commercial development, violent weather, and warming temperatures—change and destruction—are doing their part to lay bare the layers of the past. The world is mutating faster than archaeologists can keep up.

Yet, as their sites multiply and their profession expands, archaeologists find themselves in the same predicament as other cultural memory workers: with too little support for the hard work of salvaging and making sense of our past.

It is the above that Johnson confronts, again and again, as she travels around the world, meeting archaeologists, talking to them, and in some instances working alongside them. It is their unbending determination to continue doing what they love the most, no matter what the odds, that connects all the archaeologists Johnson spends time with and writes about in the book. Some of the stories are happy: for instance, in the chapter titled “Extreme Beverages: Taking beer seriously”, Johnson meets and talks to Patrick McGovern, an archaeologist who did research into ancient beverages: research that led to the publication of his book Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages, and from there to his collaborations with Dogfish Head Brewery to recreate ancient alcoholic beverages for the delectation of a new, 21st century audience, This has led to McGovern’s superstar status, not only amongst his peers, but amongst laypeople too.

McGovern’s story, though, is a rare example of someone who was at the right place, the right time, looking at the right thing, and asking the right kinds of questions. Many of the other archaeologists are living, walking examples of the kind of steel and determination it takes to be an archaeologist—and, more importantly, to stay an archaeologist. My favourites are the stories of Sarah Milledge Nelson (featured in the chapter titled “Pig Dragons: How to pick up an archaeologist”), Kathy Abbass (whose story is told in the chapter “Underwater Mysteries: Slow archaeology, deep archaeology”), and Joan Connelly (the central figure of the chapters “Explorers Clubs: Classics of the ancient world and Hollywood” and “Field School Redux: The earth-whisperers”). These women are class acts in their own right, working against not just the usual rigours of archaeology but also the deeply-ingrained sexism of the field: Nelson, in particular, has written books about gender in archaeology and has repeatedly called for more archaeological research into the place of women in history. Johnson summarises Nelson’s endeavours in the field thusly:

Nelson made it clear that the hardest battles she had to fight were the ones for the respect of her male colleagues. “My archaeological writings presume that what women did in the past is recoverable and interesting,” she wrote.

… To some extent, the archaeologists find what they’re looking for, and if you never look for evidence of powerful women, even if the hills and valleys are full of queens and warriors, they’ll be invisible.

That last part sent a shiver down my spine, because most of my life I’d been told in school and by the media that women in power were “rare”, as if they were unicorns. Earlier this year I read Kara Cooney’s Hatshepsut biography, titled The Woman Who Would be King, and it was thrilling to read a book written by a woman about another woman who wielded power successfully, only to have her accomplishments either swept under the rug, dismissed as “unimportant”, or attributed to others—and these done both by the people of her own time, and by Egyptologists in the 20th and 21st centuries. Cooney’s book felt incredible to read because Hatshepsut was the rare example of a woman who wielded power, and wielded it well: an example more women could look up to.

But what if Hatshepsut isn’t as rare as I, and many others, assume her to be? What if there were other women who were as great as Hatshepsut, but whose names and stories are unknown because someone hasn’t thought to look for them? As Nelson said: if archaeologists aren’t looking for something specific, if they aren’t tuning their minds to look for specific details, then how can they expect to find anything? All the stories in the book bear this out: Nelson went looking for goddess cults in ancient China, and she found them. Abbass went looking for the Endeavour, and found it. Connelly went looking for a temple on an island in the Adriatic, and found it. On and on and on, archaeologists find things because they’re looking for them in the first place. If archaeologists could simply recalibrate the way they think, then perhaps more “pebble[s] of information around which the narrative of history now needs to bend” could be brought to light.

Now, while all the stories are wonderfully told, and are held together by the common thread of perseverance, indomitable physical health, and sheer mulishness necessary to living the life of an archaeologist, I do find a slight issue with Johnson’s overall narrative. Within the chapters themselves, the narrative is very cohesive and flows very well; Johnson certainly knows how to tell a story. However, the movement from one chapter to the next can be less than smooth: unless the two chapters are connected somehow (as in the case with the chapters dealing with Joan Connelly), the reader hits something that feels like a narrative bump in the road as Johnson goes from, say, fields school on a Caribbean island, to an archaeology conference in a major US city. It doesn’t take very long to settle into the new story, of course (Johnson’s eminently readable voice ensures that the sense of being jarred doesn’t last very long), but it’s still there, and still noticeable.

Overall, Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble is pure delight for anyone who’s ever wanted to be an archaeologist. Johnson tackles the joys and sorrows of being an archaeologist, but more importantly, she shows just how important it is. Historians write history, but archaeologists prove them right or wrong—and, more importantly, keep them honest. It’s a great deal of responsibility to place on the shoulders of a profession that’s underpaid and treated with a lot less grace than its practitioners deserve, but as Johnson’s book shows, bottomless curiosity and the drive to find answers will keep the best archaeologists going, come what may.


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